The 1990s proved to be one of the most exciting decades in the history of professional wrestling.
Most mainstream fans will remember that period for the “Monday Night Wars” when WCW and WWE, the two biggest companies in the industry, battled for supremacy.
A little off the beaten path, however, was a much smaller wrestling company — a bizarre and alternative universe that was based out of a former bingo hall in Philadelphia. From those humble roots would emerge an outfit of rebels and renegades that would revolutionize the business.
Extreme Championship Wrestling, better known as ECW, is the topic of a new documentary that examines the promotion from the inside out.
John Philapavage, the architect behind the project, began the documentary 12 years ago with the help of lifelong friend Kevin Kiernan.
Their goal was to produce a film that would appeal to the general public beyond wrestling fans.
“We like to call this the study of a subculture’s subculture,” says Philapavage. “Pro wrestling is a world that is an odd island to most people. In the 1990s, Extreme Championship Wrestling was the bizarre underground of that subculture. We wanted to bring the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of this promotion to the mainstream, its ups and its downs, from its beginning in the early ‘90s all the way into 2012.”
The project has taken a number of twists and turns over the past 12 years, but is now in the final editing stages. Philapavage and Kiernan are in the process of sifting through, cutting and refining more than 60 interviews and 50 hours of footage. The title has yet to be officially announced.
“We’re about a week or 10 days from having a first draft with just interviews — no music, b-roll, photos or anything else,” says Philapavage. “There are still little pieces of footage trickling out and a few new things to work in, so it’s a long process. The next two months are going to be killer.”
The filmmakers, however, need help in bringing the project to fruition.
They recently launched a Kickstarter fundraiser with the goal of making $23,200 to help finance the documentary.
“The more money, the better the quality of the finished product,” says Philapavage. It’s the added expenses associated to the release of the film that require the additional funding.
Philapavage is determined to see the documentary released. He’s devoted too much time, effort and money into the project to see it die on the vine.
Plus, he adds, it’s a film that really needs to be seen.
“I honestly think this is must-see because it’s the first wrestling documentary in a long time that I think a wrestling fan can show their sister and/or their mother, and it might spark intelligent conversation. I think it will open a lot of eyes, both to the positives and the negatives of the business, but ECW specifically.
“There is a lot of positive and negative to that legacy they’ve left, and I think a lot of fans are too close to it, or feel they have it clearly defined. I’d take your non-fan friend to see it with you, so you have both perspectives to the discussion once you see it, on the drive home.”
Their goal, he says, was to make the best wrestling documentary ever. “And I think we’ve done it.”
That’s not to slight other mat documentaries, such as the acclaimed “Beyond the Mat,” says Philapavage.
“This is a wrestling documentary with a different view. I think ‘Beyond the Mat’ was in many ways great, but I think the director was somewhat seduced and cajoled by those in the industry. I think his idea of making it his discovery of the wrestling world wasn’t quite in-depth enough.”
And while there have been other books and full-length documentaries concerning ECW, Philapavage says this film is less about storylines and angles and more of a mainstream study geared at those who aren’t necessarily followers of ECW.
It’s a real-world story that they have attempted to humanize.
“I want my movie to be the movie people talk about when they say, ‘I only know about pro wrestling because of that documentary.’ There is so much story here, so much to examine. So many sides and arguments to give fair and balanced coverage to, all the while allowing the audience to intelligently decide how they feel about our subjects, what they do, and why they do it.”
Legacy of ECW
The project began in 2000 when both filmmakers, who attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, were only 19 years old. Philapavage was a wrestling fan growing up, and was particularly captivated by Extreme Championship Wrestling as a teen. Kiernan, whom Philapavage had known since he was 2, wasn’t a fan, but brought a fresh perspective to the project.
Much of their film was shot in 2001, but lack of funding forced the pair to put the project on hold several times.
The project was resurrected again in January when Philapavage attended the final ECW Arena show. They collected 15 additional hours of footage in April at Extreme Reunion in Philadelphia. That show reunited ECW alumni in front of nearly 2,000 fans.
“We were shell-shocked,” Philapavage says of the experience. “But we got some amazing stuff.”
Over the span of 12 years the two conducted interviews with wrestlers, referees, ring announcers, security staff, company staff and journalists, all the way to fans and fan organizers.
The film, says Philapavage, is more than just about the rise and fall of ECW. It’s about what made ECW tick, told from the performers who were there, and how the promotion resonated with its hardcore audience.
It’s a story of the men and women who helped build this small mom and pop promotion into a national force.
“We examine the violence and bloodshed, marketing and fan involvement, as well as the decisions of those in charge, through the company’s triumphs, glory years, controversies and demise,” says Philapavage.
The film also aims to take an honest, critical look at the history, legacy and impact of ECW on the professional wrestling industry.
“ I think this movie will humanize a lot of these wrestlers, make you relate to the fans we present, and it has an intellectual edge to it. We aren’t pretending this is normal. We’re examining why they did the things they did. The narrative arc of ECW is amazing. You couldn’t write it. This company was up and down so many times, and I think the cast of characters we interviewed really jumps off the screen at you.”
More than blood and gore
The hard-hitting and controversial company, which started out as a Philadelphia-area independent group called Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1992, was the forerunner in a new generation of pro wrestling.
ECW was the home to hostile crowds, extreme violence, edgy storylines and mature sexual references.
The barbed wire on the cover of the documentary is reflective of the violence. But it was about much more than hardcore brawling and foreign objects. ECW didn’t try to be like WCW and WWE. It was the punk rock of professional wrestling.
“This film seeks to shed light on a group of people that came together with the goal of turning their industry on its head,” says Philapavage. “The sacrifices they made trying to achieve it were often physically and mentally brutal, as they were chasing the dream of trying to create something innovative in professional wrestling. They succeeded by playing an often unheralded role in the creation of the cultural phenomenon that was the wrestling boom of the late 90’s, but failed to fully realize their dream of getting to the top of that swell of popular acceptance that they helped create. We want to tell their story.”
Philapavage says the documentary delves into the Internet’s impact on ECW, its cult status and fan involvement.
It’s not a film that dissects ECW’s storylines, angles and characters. It goes much deeper than that.
“We touch on the business of ECW, rock-star lifestyle of its wrestlers, the violence, the escalation of that violence, always asking, ‘Explain what your motivation was’ to the wrestlers, or asking the office staff, ‘Why did you promote this product this way?’ We examine if they went too far in several cases, with several incidents they had, from fan riots, to baiting fans, to fires and the Eric Kulas incident.
“We give you everything from before the formation to the aftermath, as well as candid interviews from a reunion where we talked to several people on camera for the second time — 11 years later. Our story is very in-depth, but we’re always mindful of if a non-fan understands this.”
Philapavage points to the fact that he and his partner reached out to the wrestling media for a fresh perspective on ECW.
“I think our coverage on these stories is more holistic than any documentary I’ve seen on ECW, and a big part of that is not only the wide array of wrestlers and ECW personnel we interviewed, but the fact that reached out to the wrestling media to give the story perspective and context. We asked a lot of people tough questions, and gave everyone who would sit for us a platform. One of the biggest selling points to this is that we are not in the wrestling business — we’re filmmakers — and having said that, we’ve followed the wrestling industry and this story for 17 years — 12 of which we’ve been working on this documentary. We are approaching this as journalists, and our agenda is finding the truth.”
‘Ghost’ of Paul Heyman
One major ECW figure conspicuous by his absence in the documentary is Paul Heyman.
Heyman was the creative mastermind behind the ECW revolution.
“Heyman was terribly elusive during the many years it took us to make this film,” says Philapavage. “I think he likes to control the room, so to speak, and I don’t think he was interested in dealing with the questions we were asking. I also think he figured we were so small, it might never amount to anything. He’s a very calculated guy, and I can appreciate that.”
Philapavage also realizes that any documentary on ECW would not be complete without a focus on Heyman.
But he thinks the scope of Heyman’s influence on the company and its performers was captured in the film.
“Obviously the project was dormant several times, but every time I reached out to him he would not sit for us. Without giving away too much, I think it’s fair to say a lot of Heyman’s views and thoughts will be included in this film. There’s enough people in it who dole out the Paul Heyman doctrine. I think it’s very well balanced.”
“At the very least, I’ve grown to like the way his ‘ghost’ hangs over the film,” he adds.
Philapavage adds that ECW icon Tommy Dreamer would have provided a nice touch as well.
“Tommy Dreamer would have been interesting if he would have answered my questions, but the timing never worked out. I spoke with Tommy several times. He’s a good guy. Honestly, it is a tradeoff, because we have a lot of interviews with people who weren’t included in other documentaries because they weren’t seen as stars, but their collective story is invaluable to us.
Most notable, he says, was the team of Public Enemy.
“I’m thinking of a lot of behind-the-scenes people, but also Public Enemy. We have the only interviews of their kind with Ted Petty and Mike Durham, who sadly are no longer with us, and those are really candid, personable interviews. There is a non-wrestler I came close to getting on the record, who actually is the person I’d most like to have, and it actually wasn’t Paul Heyman, which surprises even me.”
Todd Gordon, says Philapavage, was one of the most valuable contributors to the film.
Gordon, a pawnbroker and jewelry store owner, promoted the first Eastern Championship Wrestling card in front of around 100 fans at a sports bar in Philadelphia.
He was the founder of that company, a regional promotion operating under the loose national banner of the NWA, as well as Extreme Championship Wrestling. He owned the promotion until it was sold to head booker Heyman in May 1995.
The company, struggling under the weight of expectations it had set for itself, went bankrupt in 2001.
“ECW was never about the letters,” Gordon said after WWE owner Vince McMahon shut down the promotion. “ECW was a symbol for people who worked their (behind) off every night, whether there was 5,000 people there or five people there. It’s about a work ethic. ECW is not about a title.”
The heart and soul of the company was its devoted legion of zealous, bloodthirsty fans who routinely brought weapons of all kinds to further enhance the electric atmosphere.
Believes in project
Philapavage says the film’s first cut should clock in at approximately two-and-a-half hours.
“If we’re ever so lucky to have a director’s cut, that would probably be it, but for our actual DVD and film festival cut, we’d love to have it at two hours or less.”
The problem, he says, is deciding what can be sacrificed from the story.
“There are actually a lot of moments that will make you laugh to go with the intense or dramatic moments. I don’t want to cut out the fun things we have just because we are running long. At the same time, I don’t want to sacrifice the dramatic arc. So it’s tough, but a good problem to have. Better than having no story at all.”
There is, of course, the possibility that the Kickstarter campaign could come up short of its goal.
“That would be really tough,” says Philapavage. “It’s very expensive to make a quality film and get it out to the public, especially when you’ve already spent so much money you’ll probably never recoup. We have had discussions about it. At the very least it will be a holdup if we don’t get funding, and it could affect the penetration we can get as far as getting it out to everyone.”
Philapavage says he’s staying positive, though, and will continue to pound the pavement until the funding is secured. Time is of the essence.
“That’s why I’m trying to beat the streets and get the word out to everybody. I just believe so much in this project, and I feel like if I can have a conversation with every person I meet, I can convince them to see this film. If people can see that we’re genuine and we’re trying to do something different, I feel they will respond and we’ll meet the goal.”